The Safety Police: Is Free Speech Being Stifled on College Campuses?

Something is going badly wrong for American teenagers, as we can see in the statistics on depression, anxiety, and suicide. Something is going very wrong on many college campuses, as we can see in the rise in efforts to disinvite or shout down visiting speakers, and in changing norms about speech, including a recent tendency to evaluate speech in terms of safety and danger. This new culture of “safetyism” is bad for students and bad for universities.

Safety is good, of course, and keeping others safe from harm is virtuous, but virtues can become vices when carried to extremes. “Safetyism” refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. “Safety” trumps everything else, no matter how unlikely or trivial the potential danger. When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to stay “emotionally safe” while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient. The end result may be similar to what happened when we tried to keep kids safe from exposure to peanuts: a widespread backfiring effect in which the “cure” turns out to be a primary cause of the disease.

When the federal Office of Education began collecting data in 1869, there were only 63,000 students enrolled in higher education institutions throughout the United States; they represented just 1 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds. Today, an estimated 20 million students are enrolled in American higher education, including roughly 40 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds. U.S. elite institutions draw substantial international enrollment, and 17 of the top 25 universities in the world are in the U.S. The enormous expansion of scope, scale, and wealth demands professionalization, specialization, and a lot of support staff.

Young people have come to believe that danger lurks everywhere even in the classroom, and even in private conversations.

Some administrative growth is necessary and sensible, but when the rate of that expansion is several times higher than the rate of faculty hiring, there are significant downsides, most obviously the increase in the cost of a college degree. A less immediately obvious downside is that goals other than academic excellence begin to take priority as universities come to resemble large corporations — a trend often bemoaned as “corporatization.” Political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg, author of the 2011 book The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, argues that over the decades, as the administration has grown, the faculty, who used to play a major role in university governance, have ceded much of that power to non-faculty administrators. He notes that once the class of administrative specialists was established and became more distinct from the professor class, it was virtually certain to expand; administrators are more likely than professors to think that the way to solve a new campus problem is to create a new office to address the problem.

These administrators are bombarded with directives (from in-house counsel, outside risk-­management professionals, the school’s public relations team, and the upper echelons of the administration) that they must limit the university’s legal liability in everything from personal injury lawsuits to wrongful termination, and from intellectual property to ­wrongful-death actions. This is one reason they are so keen to regulate what students do and say.

Two categories of First Amendment cases on campus encourage this kind of thinking quite directly: overreaction and overregulation.

Overreaction and overregulation are usually the work of people within bureaucratic structures who have developed a mindset commonly known as CYA (Cover Your Ass). They know they can be held responsible for any problem that arises on their watch, especially if they took no action to prevent it, so they often adopt a defensive stance. In their minds, overreacting is better than underreacting, overregulating is better than underregulating, and caution is better than courage. This attitude reinforces the safetyism mindset that many students learn in childhood.

It certainly did not help that today’s college students were raised in the fearful years after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Ever since that awful day, the U.S. government has been telling us: “If you see something, say something.” Young people have come to believe that danger lurks everywhere, even in the classroom, and even in private conversations. Everyone must be vigilant and report threats to the authorities. At New York University in 2016, for example, administrators placed signs in the rest­rooms outlining how to report one another anonymously if they experience “bias, discrimination, or harassment,” including by calling a “Bias Response Line.”

Of course, there should be an easy way to report cases of true harassment and employment discrimination; such actions are immoral and unlawful. But bias alone is not harassment or discrimination. The term is not defined on the NYU Bias Response website, but psychological experiments have consistently shown that to be human is to have biases. We are biased toward ourselves and our in groups, toward attractive people, toward people who have done us favors, and even toward people who share our name or birthday. Presumably the administrators running the Bias Response Line are most interested in negative biases based on identity categories, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. But given the high levels of concept creep on university campuses and the widespread idea that micro-­aggressions are ubiquitous and dangerous, there are sure to be some students who have a very low threshold for detecting bias in others and attributing ambiguous statements to prejudice.

It becomes more difficult to develop a sense of trust between professors and students in such an environment. The Bias Response Line allows students to report a professor for something said or shown even before the lecture has ended. Many professors now say that they are “teaching on tenterhooks” or “walking on eggshells,” which means that fewer of them are willing to try anything provocative in the classroom — or cover important but difficult course material.

To show just one example of how bias response systems discourage risk-taking: University of Northern Colorado adjunct professor Mike Jensen was called to multiple meetings after a single student filed a “Bias Incident Report” following a discussion of controversial topics in a first-year writing class. The first reading assigned in the class was our Atlantic article, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The professor asked the class to read the article and then engage in a discussion of a controversial topic, to be chosen by the class. The topic that the students chose was transgender issues. (One of the biggest stories that semester had been the revelation of Caitlyn Jenner’s identity as a trans woman.) Jensen suggested that students read an article about parents objecting to a transgender high school student using the girls’ locker room. He explained that although most of the students might not agree with these skeptical views, in academia, grappling with difficult and controversial perspectives is expected, so it was important that even these viewpoints be discussed. Jensen later recalled the conversation as “a very nice discussion of seeing other perspectives.” He was surprised when he learned that a student had filed a Bias Incident Report against him. He was advised to avoid the topic of transgender issues for the rest of the semester and was ultimately not rehired.

The bureaucratic innovation of “bias response” tools may be well intended, but they can have the unintended negative effect of creating an “us versus them” campus climate that results in hyper-vigilance and reduced trust. Some professors end up concluding that it isn’t worth the risk of having to appear before a bureaucratic panel, so it’s better to just eliminate any material from the syllabus or lecture that could lead to a complaint. Then, as more and more professors shy away from potentially provocative materials and discussion topics, their students miss out on opportunities to develop intellectual anti-fragility. As a result, they may come to find even more material offensive and require even more protection.

Universities have an important moral and legal duty to prevent harassment on campus. What counts as harassment, however, has changed quite a lot in recent years. For example, consider the case in which a student who worked as a janitor at his college was sanctioned because he was seen reading a book called Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, a book that celebrates the defeat of the Klan when they marched on Notre Dame in the 1920s. (The image on the cover was upsetting to the two people who reported him.) Lowering the bar that far trivializes the real harm that true harassment can do — and frequently does — to students’ education. The purpose of these laws is to protect students from unlawful acts, not to empower censors.

The best example of how expanded notions of harassment have come to threaten free speech and academic freedom is the case of Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis. In a May 2015 Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Kipnis criticized what she saw as “sexual paranoia” on her campus, arising from changing attitudes toward sex and new ideas in feminism that she found disempowering. She wrote:

The feminism I identified with as a student stressed independence and resilience. In the intervening years, the climate of sanctimony about student vulnerability has grown too thick to penetrate; no one dares question it lest you’re labeled antifeminist.

Kipnis’s essay criticized Northwestern’s sexual misconduct policies — in particular, the prohibition on romantic relationships between adult students and faculty or staff. After her article was published, Kipnis was the target of protests from student activists, who carried mattresses across campus and demanded that the administration condemn the article. Then two graduate students filed a complaint against Kipnis, claiming that her article created a hostile environment. This resulted in a secret investigation of Kipnis that lasted 72 days. When she wrote a book about her experience, she was subjected to yet another investigation, this time stemming from complaints by four Northwestern faculty members and six graduate students, who claimed that her book’s discussion of false sexual misconduct accusations violated the university’s policies on retaliation and sexual harassment. This second investigation lasted a month. She was asked to respond to more than 80 written questions about her book and to turn over her source material. While both of these investigations were eventually dropped, from beginning to end, the process took more than two years. Kipnis noted after her ordeal:

My sense was that all of these protections were not making people less vulnerable, they were making people more vulnerable. …[Students are] going to be impeded when they leave university and go out into the world, and nobody is going to protect them from the multitudes of injuries and slights and that kind of thing that we all have to deal with in the course of daily life.

In sum, administrators generally have good intentions; they are trying to protect the university and its students. But good intentions sometimes lead to policies that are bad for students. Some of the regulations promulgated by administrators restrict freedom of speech, often with highly subjective definitions of key concepts. These rules contribute to an attitude on campus that chills speech, in part by suggesting that freedom of speech can or should be restricted because of some students’ emotional discomfort.

As far as we can tell from private conversations, most university presidents reject the culture of safetyism. They know it is bad for students and bad for free inquiry, but they find it politically difficult to say so publicly. From our conversations with students, we believe that most high school and college students are not fragile, they are not “snowflakes,” and they are not afraid of ideas. So if a small group of universities is able to develop a different sort of academic culture — one that finds ways to make students from all identity groups feel welcome without using the divisive methods that seem to be backfiring on so many campuses — we think that market forces will take care of the rest. There will be a growing recognition across the country that safetyism is dangerous and that it is stunting our children’s development.

If we can educate the next generation more wisely, they will be stronger, richer, more virtuous — and even safer.

Jonathan Haidt is a social and cultural psychologist at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Greg Lukianoff is a lawyer, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.

This article is featured in the September/October 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: SEPS/